In my experience (I’m an architect), any group of architects acts as an echo chamber in which the self-amplified reverberations subside only gradually. In Austin, where I live, years went by before architects finally — well, mostly, and only recently — stopped trumpeting the potential afforded by the many design opportunities (new houses, offices, restaurants, hotels) in what had long been African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods east of the Interstate downtown. Architects were tardy to acknowledge the staggering gentrification our myopia had helped facilitate, and, if not exactly recoil in shame, at least shut up.
While not as urgent, from the same closed room comes this: Over the past few years, I’ve heard more and more architects — mostly but not exclusively young — excitedly describe the competitive public-art commissions they’ve been awarded. I don’t think the increase is coincidental. I’ve sat on a number of public-art selection committees, and there have been ever more independent architects (i.e., not serving as consultants to artists) among the applicants and finalists. It makes sense. Architects know how to make design objects seem inevitable, apolitical, responsible. They say just what city officials, made nervous by listening to artists, want to hear.
Public art is a growth sector for architects, and it makes sense. Architects know how to make design objects seem inevitable, apolitical, responsible.
Public art is a growth sector for architects. Offices have sprung up that describe themselves as “… a design-and-build firm at the intersection of public art, architecture, and technology,” or “[p]racticing at the confluence of art, architecture, and building technology…,” or “[w]orking at the intersection of architecture, urbanism and art [and] dedicated to the expansion and preservation of public space.” 1 Here come the degrees! You can, for example, get a Master in Design Studies in Art, Design, and the Public Domain at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Quoting from the program’s webpage:
One of the remarkable developments in contemporary culture is the convergence of practices that once unambiguously belonged to either art or design, but which today share methods, means and concerns. Of particular importance are practices that seek to engage with the public and social realm. The phrase “spatial practice” has become a widely-used term to describe a variety of architectural and artistic engagements with the city, society and with aesthetic practice in general. In many ways it defines the new and moving boundary of the design discipline.
This convergence of practices may indeed be a remarkable development. Or — since the GSD is not home to Harvard’s art program — it may just be claim jumping by a suspiciously unified “design discipline” over a conveniently self-moved boundary, architecture congratulating itself for co-opting the allegedly “unambiguous” territory once reserved for art.
This convergence of practices may just be claim jumping by a suspiciously unified ‘design discipline’ over a conveniently self-moved boundary.
Did art cancel that reservation? I don’t think so. After Depression-era federal art funding ended in 1943, public art funding reappeared with substantial commissions only in the 1970s and 1980s (though municipal percent-for-public-art funding started in Philadelphia in 1959, and at a state level in Hawaii in 1967). 2 It’s worth remembering that in the U.S. most contemporary public-art commissions, as opposed to private and corporate projects, intentionally set aside a small percentage of the money allocated for publicly funded construction — money that includes fees for the work of architects — in order to guarantee paid work for artists. Many architects originally supported this arrangement in the name of cultural enrichment. For me, thankfully so: some big public commissions kept my wife, an artist, afloat.
It’s true this structure requires artists working in the public realm to accept contracts similar to those granted to architects, often for similarly described design services set out in similar stages. These parallels are not in themselves an invitation for architects — who often enjoy better staffing and infrastructural support — to poach. But, more importantly, architects do not think of taking these commissions as poaching. Perpetually deluded, architects assume that artists admire us as fellow-travelers. After all, don’t we now all “share the methods, means and concerns”?
Yet in the echo chamber of FORM, form, form, the possibility that architects accepting public art commissions might not be admired universally never comes up. The degree to which, today, people in design fields (read: architects) more or less hope away the distinction between “artist” and “architect” invalidates the usefulness and deep potential of both terms. And that’s aside from the fact that there really are no architects who support themselves on public-art commissions, which are simply where they go to play. So the question — Wait, I’m sorry, isn’t this your sustenance? — vanishes in the self-justifying voluptuousness of architectural opportunity, where public art is invariably described by architects as a great way to explore ideas you cannot pursue in normal practice.
Architects hope away the distinction between ‘artist’ and ‘architect,’ invalidating the deep potential of both terms.
Maybe “explore” isn’t the right word. Most of the public artwork I’ve seen by architects, while often inventive, is fairly predictable: it invents within the limits of what architects think art looks like. Just to continue generalizing blatantly, such works, from habit or preference, tend toward justifiable form — like the experiments based in materials, variation, or process I see more often in architecture schools than in art schools. 3 They’re also typically benign. While that’s not the same as populist (architecture-culture shorthand for not critical), neither is it a critical definition of public.
Patience, by Jensen Architects, from 2010, is a clear example of public art by an architect. I’m singling it out because Jensen seems like a good (and profitable) architecture firm: they can stand the criticism. The FOR-SITE Foundation, a private non-profit that collaborates to make public artworks on national park land, commissioned Patience as part of the temporary public exhibition Presidio Habitats (2010-2011) within Presidio National Park, which sprawls over the headlands south of the Golden Gate Bridge. (This exhibition deliberately mixed installations by architects and by artists. It’s worth noting here that San Francisco’s metropolitan public art programs seem to have withstood substantial incursions by architects. New York City’s have as well.)
The habitat assigned to Jensen is a meadow where Great Blue Herons hunt voles. In the FOR-SITE Foundation’s description of the piece, you may recognize what seems like a familiar site-based logic — it’s actually a rhetoric — that touts an admittedly charming but entirely improbable experiential consequence. The operable term is could:
Each of the ten solitary chairs located in and around the Fort Scott Parade Ground had a specific focus and relationship to the site. An observer sitting in a chair could experience an acute awareness of the site’s topography; the relationship of the sky to the light reflecting off the parade ground; and an unexpected view of the landscape. In this way, the chair and its occupant became part of the secret theater of the site, quietly borrowing the Great Blue Heron’s techniques of still hunting and still viewing.
I like Jensen’s chairs. But do I think their occasional occupants actually experienced the site as a secret theater in Heron-vision, and were moved to more responsible public behavior, in this case an ever-greater environmental sensitivity? No. I think we accept these works as “public art” because of the propriety of the objects rather than the site-specific experience conceptualized in FOR-SITE’s description. This is art as a recognizable, critical-seeming commodity. The forms are familiar, much as figural sculpture once was: acceptable as public-space embroidery. Being handsomely photographable, they fulfill a public role that is more obvious today than the putative experience imagined in the description (the Instagram account @photocriticgallery has many similar examples by both artists and architects).
Art defined as an identifiable product isn’t remotely close to a more challenging cultural possibility: art might be no more and no less than the thing that people who call themselves artists do.
Art defined in this way — as strictly an identifiable product — isn’t remotely close to a more challenging cultural possibility: that “art” might be no more and no less than the thing that people who call themselves artists do. This, coincidentally, is the unassailable definition of art offered by the artist Robert Irwin — who, in saying so, is of course following in a long tradition of Modernist (mostly Duchampian) thinking. The corollary is that architecture is literally the thing that people who call themselves architects do. That’s also an ironclad definition, though the immediate difference — calling yourself an architect has legal ramifications — hints at an underlying incongruity in the relationship of the two practices.
Overseers of public-realm desire do not typically understand the art-architecture distinction in this way. (Although the concept — albeit unspoken, and certainly not as radically conceived as it is by Irwin — was inherent to percentage funding for public art as initially constituted, in that these programs assumed there was a distinct and identifiable group of producers called artists, who alone make art). Those overseers rarely seek out the potentially erratic destabilization caused by whatever it is that people who call themselves artists might decide to do when they’re invited to work in public space. In public art, predictability and inoffensiveness go far in winning the commission. So justifiable form, which architects traffic in, is a virtue. In this regard — and this will probably be a familiar observation for you — public art is arguably distinct from art, at least as the latter has evolved as a critical-cultural activity in the last century.
These days, accordingly, I think of a lot of public art as architecture, and that’s what I call it. Partly this has to do with who is making the decisions. Even if architects are not making the actual “art,” many now carefully plan where and how a public sculpture or installation will be allowed within or adjacent to their buildings, and they’re often included on teams that jury and supervise the artwork’s development. I know of several instances in which the architect has insisted on naming the primary public artists in advance, like choosing trusted subcontractors.
At the same time, public-art commissions seem increasingly to be structured from their inception as problems best resolved by architects, a sneaky way for cities and/or architects to extend design budgets. I don’t always object. Some commissions, like NADAAA’s Power Picket, here in Austin, require precise architectural knowledge. But often now, in public art, it’s the architect going it alone, sometimes using public-art money to add back into the design the kinds of statement details that would otherwise have been value-engineered out.
I admire and support architects who are exploring the edges of disciplinary propriety, though I personally think those edges lie elsewhere — in the theoretical consequences of sustainability, for example, which are a subset of a larger conceptual dilemma: performance rather than form as the basis for architectural value. I don’t blame architects for snapping up public-art opportunities (well, maybe a bit). The ethical problem arises because of how the selection processes in public art have changed, and there are certainly more pressing questions in architecture!
Still, I find it vexing to think of art-like work done by architects as art. I don’t mean to be simplistic about boundaries between disciplines. But if an architect did it, I prefer to think of it as — and to call it — architecture.
I don’t mean to be simplistic about boundaries between disciplines. But if an architect did it, I prefer to call it architecture.
There are a couple reasons why I feel this way. One, which I’ll return to in a minute, is that there’s a distinct advantage to the separation of art and architecture in the continuous perception of a landscape. The desire for that sense of landscape continuity — actually, the desire to have it again, as we assume viewers had it in pre-Modern landscape — helped to bring down the Modern, at least in architecture; and that yearning (which is mostly what I write about for Places) remains a powerful if complicated source of meaning in architectural design today.
The other reason is a question of equity. I know a number of architects who like to think of themselves as artists. But I don’t know many — even any — who extend the courtesy in reverse. Agreed: Donald Judd was a great artist. But, honestly, Architect, are you comfortable calling him an architect, too? Admit it! In your dark heart you’re not willing to grant that license. I’m certainly not.
It was Robert Irwin — to whose work, like Judd’s, architects often turn for inspiration — who originally made this point to me in a long discussion on the topic in 1990. (He’d come to lecture in the College of Design at Iowa State University, where I was teaching at the time.) Laughing, he told me as proof that if he designed his own studio, it wouldn’t be published in an architecture magazine. Irwin said that this was simply an aspect of the culture of architects. He believed that the architects he worked with all felt they knew his business, which they thought was the making of sophisticated form (a problem that famously came to a head a few years later, when Irwin clashed with the architect Richard Meier over the design of a garden at the Getty Museum 4).
But it wasn’t, and still isn’t. Artists and architects may share methods and means, but Irwin argued that our concerns do not overlap, or not much. At the time, he was struggling to resolve an arts master plan for the Miami International Airport, in which he ultimately proposed that, in the public realm, the work of architects should be entirely distinct from that of artists. The former, Irwin argued, best served to — was in fact expected to — stabilize perception. The latter best served the public by destabilizing perception.
I came out of this exchange embarrassed, and chastened. Turnabout is fair play. Architect, Irwin’s point is that you are not an artist. There is no dialogue if the architect is doing all the talking and co-opting all the making, flattening art from an acculturated construct (the most tentative of all agreements) into mere “given” form. As I hope to point out, landscape will thank you to remember that.
A Long Introduction to an Entirely Counter-Intuitive Example
I recently had an odd experience that verified the advantage of distinguishing between the works of artists and architects as they influence the perception of landscape — here defined as the topographical landform + the constructions sited there + the cultural desires at work in the making of those constructions + the assumptions a viewer brings to all of the above. I got to see the amazing works of the architects Ensamble Studio at the Tippet Rise Art Center in Montana. I found that if I thought of these works as art, the constructions were devastating to the other sculpture at the site. However, if I thought of them as architecture, suddenly the actual art, the art by artists, was better again.
On the surface, the Ensamble Studio works are a counter-intuitive example with which to make the point about site-responsive art versus architecture. They would seem to be as art-like as any construction by an architect could remotely be, which again suggests that the distinction I wish to make does not inhere entirely in form, but also in how you perceive form in landscape, a subject as complex as the vastness of the extensive Post- and after-Modern literature on the topic.
I want to talk in detail about Tippet Rise. But I want to introduce that discussion by considering a familiar and ongoing yearning within architecture, to which the Ensamble Studio projects are obviously related. This is the urge — evident in architects’ desire to design public art projects! — to expand the discipline’s formal and conceptual possibilities by venturing into the kinds of landscape- and site-centric experimentation that art as a cultural activity has so productively explored for the last fifty years.
Like land art, architecture in the last half century has been reacting to the oppressive no-where-ness of the Modern world.
I say the desire is internal to architecture. That is not entirely true. Like land art, architecture in the last half century has also been reacting to the oppressive no-where-ness (among other phenomena) of the Modern world. How can a building help to preserve our experience of place in specific landscapes? Architecture has posed any number of solutions to this question, and explicitly managing the experience of place is common to almost all the wildly varying critical architecture produced since the collapse of the Modern.
But imagining that the architectural solution for Modernist situational anomie might be to make buildings look and act like site-specific sculpture does, I believe, arise from within architectural discourse. It’s one of many attempts by architects to preserve a (still) heroic Modernist abstraction for the after-Modern, even amidst Post-Modernism’s unsettling and disheartening — but in the marketplace still prevalent — historical mimetics.
Curiously, for this specific strategy of unified landscape making — the building as a site-specific sculpture — to work, one thing has to be true. You, as an experiencer of landscape, have to respond to the form of any given construction just as form, without thinking beyond the direct spatial/emotional effects that arise from that formal condition or dimension. “I feel compressed,” or “it directs my gaze to the horizon,” etc., is essentially the limit of your response. You may recall this idealized state of being as a lovely, early-Modernist pipedream.
Architectural discourse imagines that one solution might be to make buildings look and act like site-specific sculpture.
In that dream, it was imagined by the relevant theorists that you would not wonder about extra-formal questions — for example, is it architecture or art? — because qualities promoting such doubts would have been wrung from the construction by its self-justifying form, now entirely free of the strictures of history. Besides, the dissolution of disciplinary distinctions between art and architecture — distinctions already seen in the early 20th century as burdensome cultural prejudice — would have mooted your ability to bring questions of context or history to mind.
It’s true that some artists at that time were creating work that trafficked in the realm traditionally reserved for architects. (Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International from 1920 is the example always shown in art history surveys.) But — then as now — it was mostly architects hoping to cross the disciplinary line, in part because art has tended to have a wider cultural mandate to experiment in the West. Yet, despite these continuing forays back and forth, the boundary between art and architecture has proven strangely resistant to being dissolved. This may well be due to differences in art and architecture as economic and cultural practices. Or it may be — as with duck and duck-billed platypus — the two can’t produce viable offspring: despite their apparent similarities, they may simply be inherently distinct.
Recent promotion by architects of buildings that traffic in the formal strategies of site-specific sculptures has mostly occurred by willful default (for more on which please visit an earlier essay in this series, Landscape Is Our Sex). Occasionally that promotion is grounded in theory — an example of which is the recent interest in Object Oriented Ontology. Still, in architecture, the current theoretical arguments for the autonomy of objects smack of the need to retroactively justify design strategy, since even though the will to pure form has survived in our discipline, a basic tenet of every other critical form of after-Modern cultural production is that no experience, representation, or object is innocent of influence, politics, agenda, etc.
The gist of that argument is: to say that an object is autonomous seeks for it the status of the apolitical (or a-historical, or a-cultural, or a-disciplinary). But making that claim is already a political (or historical, cultural or disciplinary) act. Objects can be formally autonomous; they cannot maintain autonomy when a viewer experiences them. 5 Things can’t shake free of the complicated web of historical and cultural constructs that give them value. Come on: the desire to perceive an object as autonomous (or innocent) is itself a recurring cultural and political urge!
The will to pure form has survived in our discipline. But a basic tenet of every other critical form of after-Modern production is that no experience or object is innocent.
The perception of any landscape is always affected not only by the circumstantial form of a particular place and the constructed form within it, but also by all the acculturated information you carry before you see what you see. You don’t visit the High Line, the Taj Mahal, Yosemite, Ronchamps, the Ginza — anywhere, really — without already having many (even poorly) informed place-specific expectations about art, history, culture, politics, architecture. And, obviously, that information is affected by the ways in which you received it, which today might really be a question of trying to not get too much.
This, cheaply set out, is the notorious mediation so many artists and theorists but surprisingly few architects have taken as unavoidable in any after-Modern critical production. You, of course, don’t have to know that all your experiences are mediated in order to survive. But it’s impossible to avoid the consequences of not knowing — see our last national election — unless you’ve been raised deep in a hole. In which case btw you are not reading this.
Mediation being intrinsic to our understanding of landscapes isn’t a new idea. In an earlier essay in this series (“A Mound in the Wood”) I described the architect Adolph Loos’s observation, now a century old, that your experience of landscape extends beyond the nature of a landform and the strength or presence of the constructions within it. That experience is also affected by acculturated knowledge of the various distinct agents who produce those constructions.
Loos noted that the richness of landscape experience is given complexity by your knowledge of the distinctiveness of those agents. His list of landscape makers — farmer, carpenter, mason, engineer, architect — presciently included artist (prescient because most artists in 1910 were not actively engaged in structuring landscape to the degree that many now are). Loos included artist because he’d made a startling observation, probably with regard to the early Modernist sculptural experiments then offending the staid Viennese.
As you perceive a uniform, singular landscape, Loos argued, you willingly accept any sculptural object — by which he meant anything that by its presence in context demands conscious attention — that you would otherwise hate (Loos’s word, by which he meant: find disruptive to your sense of a place). You accept it, that is, as long as you know it was made by an artist. Your perception of the continuity of a landscape is, remarkably, not destroyed by the presence of such artist-made objects — which, again, you can happily hate all the while — within your continuous vista. 6
But — with the notorious exception of monuments and tombs — you are unwilling to extend this acceptance of hatred to disruptive objects created by architects. That particular form of hatred upsets your experience of landscape continuity. This upsetting does not necessarily arise from the strength or strangeness of a given form. It arises from your association of the form to its producer. Loos noted, for example, that you readily accept as normative to landscape the often profoundly bizarre formal entities made by engineers. Their most freakish objects often pass unnoticed.
By this radical logic, neither art nor architecture is understood as an object or as a profession, but rather as a distinct type of landscape experience.
Loos argued that perception of landscape isn’t based purely on form, and form isn’t innocent. Instead, your understanding of form in landscape is deeply affected by the embedded cultural structures that determine who gets to make what. By this radical logic, neither art nor architecture (nor engineering, farming, etc.) is understood by the general viewer as a form of object or as a profession, but rather as a distinct type of landscape experience in which each profession is inexorably linked to certain classes of comprehension, for which objects are the triggers.
Art: it’s not a thing, but a class of perception; and not a class of perception that just anyone can manipulate, at least as far as landscape is concerned. You will accept or reject formally similar objects in a landscape depending on your knowledge of their agency. The artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude could hang an immense curtain across a valley and have it succeed in making a compelling landscape, undisrupted — even strengthened in its identity — by this remarkably disruptive form. But you, architect, cannot. Well, technically, you can. But viewers who seek to understand that landscape as a continuity — assuming that is still everyone’s goal — will not accept it, simply because you are an architect, and that fact is known by the means through which such things are known. Of course, visitors — well, up-to-date visitors at least — to that landscape would now reject a subsequent curtain by any other artist, albeit for an entirely different reason: it’s already been done. Oddly, an engineer might be able to hang that curtain with landscape success; one would assume it was necessary.
Can’t I be both artist and architect? The history of Western architecture bears out this terrible answer: in making landscape, you cannot.
All of this emphasizes that the rules for different agents of landscape-making are not congruent. Can’t I be both artist and architect? Unfortunately, as I noted in “A Mound in the Wood,” the history of Western architecture bears out this terrible answer: in making landscape, you cannot. The sole exception to this rule is Michelangelo (and perhaps, but barely, Bernini).
How do you know who made something when you look at it in a landscape? Generally, by two intertwining means: from the specific nature of the forms in question (which includes their degree of familiarity), and from the extent to which your understanding about those forms has been mediated (I hate that term, but there it is). Regarding formal qualities, it’s probably true that, in Loos’s day, the work of architects was more readily distinct from that of artists than it is now. So, being able to grasp the agency of objects in a landscape was more easily accomplished than such acculturated understanding can be in the expanded field today.
Actually, though, it’s mostly still true. The vast majority of work by architects is distinct not just from work by artists, but also from all the constructions in a landscape put there by other agents. This is a consequence of the building economy and the consistent (and limited) types of commissions that economy grants to architects, along with the tendency of architects to generate a certain type of highly controlled form.
Really, I’m talking about a small subset of those objects: the ones, by architects, that blur the traditional perceptual boundary between architecture and sculpture in the experience of landscape. There may not be so many, but in terms of notoriety, these constructions tend to punch far above their weight, with an inordinately high quotient of coverage in press, as their blurring is the very quality in objects that social media delights in sharing in all of your feeds. In those instances, your understanding about their maker — architect or artist? — is governed almost entirely by mediation. Those who seek to blur argue that this differentiation is meaningless. But we still have those titles, and they still add surprising layers of complexity and richness to experience.
Which brings me back to Tippet Rise, a roughly 12,000-acre art center in the grassland foothills of the Beartooth Mountains in southeastern Montana, just northwest of Yellowstone. 7 If you follow contemporary architecture even a little, you know of Tippet Rise because of three constructions completed there in 2015 and 2016: Beartooth Portal, Inverted Portal, and DOMO. Photographs of these works have been widely published — on the cover of Architectural Record, for example — and pimped by those pesky architecture web aggregators.
I’m betting you know that the Spanish architects Ensamble Studio designed them. You probably also know how these pieces achieved their neo-Neolithic monumentality: by casting concrete directly into roughly excavated, rebar-filled pits in dirt. The likelihood of your knowing these things is not just a consequence of media coverage: Ensamble Studio’s founders, Antón García-Abril and Débora Mesa, are sought-after — and terrific — lecturers and teachers. There’s a strong chance that, if you’re an architect or a student in an architecture program, you’ve heard them speak. To recap: You almost certainly already know by mediation something about this place and this work — and probably about its disciplinary origins and methods of fabrication.
I’m guessing that Tippet Rise Art Center is on the list of places you intend to go, like Petra and The Lightning Field.
At the same time, it’s likely that you have not been to Tippet Rise. It’s really, really remote, and you have to make reservations long in advance. I’m guessing, though, that it‘s on the list of places you intend to go, like Petra and The Lightning Field. Even if it takes a while to get there, you will not have forgotten that the Ensamble Studio works are by architects!
It’s worth going. Tippet Rise, opened in 2016, was founded by Peter and Kathy Halstead, he a classical pianist, she an artist. 8 Blessed with financial means, and inspired by formative experiences they’d had at Storm King Art Center up the Hudson River from New York City — including watching Mark Di Suvero installing sculpture there — the Halsteads set out to make a place where visitors could experience music and art in nature, theoretically allowing each medium to open the other. In their words:
When art is freed from the four walls of a museum and the confines of a city, suddenly it relates to the world in a way that enriches the landscape, enriches the experience of … imagining how this wonderful creation is part of the world. The same is true for music. In an incredible landscape, our minds become free to think about music in a way that is moving and personal and universal all at the same time. 9
While this description accords with a long-standing romantic impulse in the arts — and the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and the Metropolitan Opera’s staging of Wagner’s Ring Cycle are among the Halsteads’ many inspirations — a number of things set the Halsteads’ undertaking apart.
First, because the collection is small, an absurd amount space is given to each piece. That works in reverse, too: because each piece is sited with a lot of space around it, the Center allows for only a small collection. Excluding the three Ensamble Studio constructions, there are five sculptures outside. That’s roughly 2,400 acres per sculpture. While two of those five are arguably site-specific, the other three are the usual suspects for generic outdoor public art, not made for these exact locations, but designed with certain kinds of site — corporate plazas and open meadows — in mind. There’s an Alexander Calder stabile, Two Discs, from 1965; 10 and two big Di Suveros, perhaps the key pieces at the center: Proverb (2002), which sat outside the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas for many years, and Beethoven’s Quartet, (2003), which came to the Halsteads from Storm King.
Second, the Halsteads wanted to ensure that live chamber music can be heard in this improbable location. With the exception of the sculptures just mentioned, every construction gives explicit consideration to musical performance (and, actually, Di Suvero’s Beethoven’s Quartet does so literally in its invitation to audience engagement — you bang on it with mallets to make sounds). This musical obsession led the Halsteads to Ensamble Studio, which had become known in part for the design of innovative acoustical spaces in Spain.
At Tippet Rise, the settings for musical performance range in degree of exposure to the outdoors. The Olivier Music Barn, engineered by Arup, is entirely enclosed. The Tiara Acoustic Shell and DOMO (from inside which Peter Halstead claims you can hear a pin drop five hundred feet away) are semi-enclosed. The Portals are apparently generous to woodwind instruments, and Stephen Talasnik’s site-specific sculpture, Satellite No. 5: Pioneer (2016) can loosely enclose an audience.
Finally, and of equal importance in distinguishing Tippet Rise from other art centers, is something hidden in fact, but powerful in effect: the Halsteads conceived the project before they had the land. Certain of their intent, they needed an ideal site for their dramatic vision, limiting their range to nothing less than the entire western United States (including Hawaii). There were reasons other locations weren’t chosen, from volcanic ash to regulations about art parks. But it’s clear from their descriptions that the Halsteads were taken by the Montana property’s epic beauty.
And it is epic. The absurdly muscular wall of the Beartooth Mountains looms to the southwest over deeply rolling, open grasslands. Mineral poor — the area has remained generally undeveloped and isolated (and you don’t see power lines on site) — it is inspiration rich. That the great luminist Albert Bierstadt painted fantastic landscapes here makes sense: the weather and light are ever-changing, and severe storms explode over the landform with surprising speed and visibility. These conditions are visceral and invite profound associations: the Halsteads describe cloud activity at Tippet Rise like the “muscled arms of Leonardo da Vinci’s God” [sic] reaching to the ground.
Still, definitions of beauty in landscape, as in art, cycle and evolve. Here, dramatic wilderness is amped up and sensually available, so transcendental interpretation comes easily. Tippet Rise also flatters the camera — it feeds our need to consume by photograph. I’m not being petty in pointing this out. The setting is staggering in a way that a camera appreciates perhaps better than an eye, which cannot be said for subtler forms of landscape that are lost to the lens (English Romantic gardens suffer by comparison).
Though many of the many stunning images of the artworks that have been published were taken precisely when you cannot visit — at night, in deepest winter, etc. — when I was there I didn’t resent my inability to remake those images, as photographers often feel pressed to do. One simply cannot take an unbecoming photograph of the place, even if the mountains, as when I visited, are veiled in the smoke of summer forest fires. Though the land may not have been hospitable to farmers or ranchers in earlier generations, who wouldn’t choose this location, today?
But the same scale and intensity that serve so well in photographs has an unusual effect on the sculptures at the center that were not designed for the site: the two big Di Suveros and the Calder. When you’re there in person and you consider these works in isolation in the landscape, they seem overwhelmed.
Calder’s Two Discs held its own against Gordon Bunshaft’s Hirschhorn Museum, from which it is on loan. At Tippet Rise, it seems diminutive. The Di Suveros, arguably the heart of the Halsteads’ collection, were easily able to stand their ground at Storm King, or in downtown Dallas. But at Tippet Rise, they struggle against the grand scale of the remote part of the property in which they are located — a perceptual situation for which they were not created, and certainly not sized.
Peter Halstead is probably alluding to this incongruity when he describes Proverb, which takes its inspiration from mechanical measuring devices (this passage comes from the book he and Kathy Halstead co-authored on Tippet Rise, which serves more or less as the official interpretation):
Explorers and geographers have traditionally used tiny machines like theodolites, calipers, sundials, and metronomes to measure the enormous distance of space and time. Against giants we throw stones. By making a machine that is an amalgam of several of the above machines, but on an enormous scale, Di Suvero makes the point that even an enormous ruler fails to measure up to the vast scale of the universe.
What I find interesting in this quote is that Halstead inadvertently but correctly points out that Proverb, as originally designed by Di Suvero, was likely intended to be perceived as gargantuan. It’s only in the context of Tippet Rise that a viewer’s reception of the piece shifts. So now the sculpture is about the failure of our scale of measure?
The scalar mismatch — this site versus that Di Suvero — is theoretically made worse by the presence of the Ensamble Studio pieces. These are clearly designed to work at the massive scale of this landform, along with whatever New Age pretensions we might bring with us when we look at it. Megalithic, protean, the Ensamble Studio trio is a case study in how to balance smallness against largeness. They have no problem harmonizing with the site’s Wagnerian dimensions. As concentrated forms, they call into question — actually embarrass — the other pieces, the presence of which seems by comparison frail, almost academic.
But here’s the odd part of my experience. I found that how I felt about those works, especially the Di Suveros, depended on whether I perceived the Ensamble Studio pieces as art or as architecture. When you take the Tippet Rise tour, you encounter two of the Ensamble Studio works — and spy the third at a distance — before seeing the Di Suveros, so they have already influenced your response to what is coming. I found that if I framed Beartooth Portal, Inverted Portal, and DOMO as art in my mind, then the Di Suveros became weak. If, conversely, I approached the Ensamble Studio works as architecture, then the Di Suveros were strong. Reflecting now on this strange divergence, I suspect it had to do with how the Ensamble Studio constructions — considered as forms that are both sited and mediated — organized my experience of landscape.
The Site, Organized
The Tippet Rise property comprises what were once eight contiguous ranches. Its larger portion is a more or less north-south rectangular block of higher ground. Attached by a narrow strip of land to this parcel’s northeast corner is a smaller, roughly square block, where the main entrance is located. The smaller parcel is at a lower elevation, in a broad valley through which a rural road connects neighboring ranches. These two parts of Tippet Rise, though both grassland, are distinct, and the programming of the art center reflects this.
The rolling foothills of the smaller block are prairie-like: you feel exposed but not lost. Though subject to the same freakish weather as the uplands, this area is workable, pond-able (the few trees, many planted by Halsteads, grow along the water courses here). In this part of Montana, it’s in these foothills that farmsteads and the human core of ranches — agrarian civilization — have developed.
Patrick Dougherty’s sculpture Daydreams (2015) — a painstakingly recreated one-room prairie schoolhouse into and around which the artist has woven one of his surreal willow-sapling storm clouds — makes sense in this setting. Calder’s vaguely bovine Two Discs is here as well, set adjacent to the ranch-like complex of the Visitor Center, Music Barn, Acoustic Shell, staff buildings, and solar-panel-shaded parking lot. (Electric vans are used to take most visitors on guided tours along the Center’s dirt roads, though a small number of people get around using off-road bicycles).
Things change in the larger parcel. This terrain climbs abruptly to the west–southwest over an immense swell that is cut perpendicularly by eroded drainages sloping downhill east-northeast, toward the lower parcel where you’ve entered. The three Ensamble Studio works are found along primary drainages in this rise. Further uphill, on high ground in the far southwest corner of the property, you find the two Di Suveros.
In the recent past, this unpredictable and indefensible higher part of the landform would have been considered only temporarily habitable, good for hunting larger game or seasonal grazing (or perhaps hiding from the law). But to be lost in natural isolation — even in an electric van — feels romantic now. Against the relative tameness of the lowlands, the upper grassland is idiosyncratic and wild. Each installation — whether art or architecture — is placed to take advantage of this sense: you cannot see one from another, and only Beartooth Portal, which is meant to be perceived as an immense gate, can be seen from the entry area on the smaller parcel below.
This area is not, as Débora Mesa pointed out to me in an email, “a tabula rasa, but pretty diverse and complex three-dimensionally.” Unlike the lower parcel, it is remarkably difficult to map the landform of the upper ground clearly in your mind, and it’s confounding to move through. Folding sub-drainages, hidden by the convex section of the slope, open one after another. Lovely dales are also eroded into the topography: you often feel surprisingly enclosed, and the sense of being sheltered encourages you to underestimate the vast scale of the environment.
Ensamble Studio was originally commissioned to design an open-to-the-outdoor concert venue for chamber music, to be built in this wildest portion of the property, a companion/opposition piece to the civilized Music Barn below. Aside from a few historic cabins and the two Di Suveros, this building would have been the only construction in the many miles of the Halsteads’ highlands. (Talasnik’s piece sits in the northwest corner, which more closely resembles the landform of the lower parcel).
A space for chamber music was the plan. But, as García-Abril and Mesa explained in a lecture I attended at the University of Texas, their first site visit was revelatory. Affected by the land’s unusual power and complexity, they began thinking of a building with comparable and compensatory presence. This led them to propose not only a design to resolve the specific functional commission — DOMO — but also a vast master plan consisting of 37 mostly dolmen-like, poured-concrete structures — “shelters, bridges, fountains, canopies, caves, temples, theaters, etc.” — to provide a constructed context for DOMO and give an overarching order to the entire property. (Not all of these structures appear on the site plan you can find on Studio Ensamble’s website.) Mesa writes:
Our master plan for Tippet Rise is an architectural and conceptual one that evolved from our early conversations with the Halsteads. When these conversations started there was nothing built on the site. Arup was at the time studying how to implement transportation and energy and we came in to contribute with an architectural idea that would add to other ongoing efforts. Instead of a single building we proposed a constellation of spaces, outdoor rooms that would spread out, finding their position on the vast site, and encourag[ing] intimate relations between visitors and the landscape. Artworks [by others] participate in this constellation and so all the pieces are positioned understanding the land and their relative position to the other pieces. And while all enjoy their own particular spots, they belong to a larger unit and help navigation and orientation, like stars. 11
The ambition of this proposal met the Halsteads’ mandate to maximize visitors’ opportunities for interaction with nature, although it was arguably over-reaching. Still, the intent to give a legible order to a complex site is clear. What is then truly noteworthy is that the three Ensamble Studio structures the Halsteads chose to build succeed remarkably with regard to this intent. In their formal power and siting, these — once you have come upon all three — allow you to map the otherwise illegible order of the site in your mind — without, at the same time, reducing the power of the landscape over all. The trio does not form the large, loose constellation Mesa refers to. But the simple figure they do establish is perhaps more monumental, and precisely coordinated with the physical structure of the site, altering perception within it.
It helps to look at a site diagram to understand how. Murphy Canyon, the most substantial of the draws that define the upland topography, divides the larger, upland parcel of the site diagonally. It links the arbitrary point where you enter to the complex high ground in its southwest corner. DOMO, the megalith-like concert pavilion, is sited near the end of this draw. Beyond it the land climbs up to the complex open terrain where the Di Suveros are located.
The two Portals sit on similar knolls in the big drainage canyons on either side of, and parallel to, Murphy Canyon. Obtuse and symmetrical, these constructions are cognate guards set half way up to DOMO. Though hidden from each other and from DOMO by the ridges in between, their kindred positions and similarity in form (in one the pour sides are oriented in, in the other out) establish a perceptible meter and scale against the complexity of the landform. Set higher up, and seemingly equidistant from each, DOMO triangulates with the Portals across the landform, strengthening a graspable pattern within the otherwise sublime scale of the rolling land. Rhyming both in their relations to their individual sites and in the rough cast concrete of which they are all made, the three constructions establish an experiential field — a setting — the effect of which is to downplay their presence as objects in favor of the unifying legibility they foster across the landscape.
What really surprised me when I visited was the palpability of that order. But that sensation makes sense. The Portals are, according to Peter Halstead, laid out in plan as spokes on a geometric wheel, the center of which would seem to be the entry to the Art Center. (Each Portal is also aligned with solstice and equinox points; obviously you don’t normally perceive this, but you’re told. 12) Beartooth Portal, the northernmost of the Ensamble Studio constructions, acts — as its name suggests — as an entryway to the higher ground. Your eye is drawn to it from the visitor center area by the structure of the landform on which it rests, and the direct route to it up-valley from below introduces the viewer to a pattern as yet invisible, that the two Portals gradually expose: the organization of narrow parallel canyons fanning out to the southwest into the larger parcel, each marked with one of the constructions.
Considering the sensibility expressed through the choice of locations in the site plan, two further aspects strike me as important. One is that the constructions were sited initially by feel, for lack of a better term. As Mesa writes,“[f]inding their final location involved driving on the ranch up and down with the Halsteads to validate their proper place, and I am sure similar excursions happened with Talasnik, Di Suvero and Dougherty, to finally decide the location of their sculptures. The landscape is so powerful that much of the design process for all had to do with spending time there and seeing what felt right.”
At the same time, the Studio Ensamble locations are also structured by a geometry less casual than “constellation” suggests. Mesa assured me that the design process unfolded as a dialogue between site experience and map-making — between driving and drawing — and notes: “at Tippet Rise there is a constant tension (or negotiation) between the physical and metaphysical, between the abstract ideas and the concrete site conditions.”
So that’s the other thing I found extraordinary: Ensamble Studio’s monumental trio helps to stabilize visual and bodily experience in an otherwise overwhelming terrain. Despite their individual presences, together the three works also establish a legible threshold to the high ground. I experienced this sense of organization and threshold-marking as a profound form of deference to the Di Suveros, which were strengthened against the demands of the landscape as a result. The Ensamble Studio constructions were conceived and begun before the Di Suveros were exactly placed. Even so, having structured the landscape, they affected its development logically. “Our masterplan is therefore an idea, an open plan that gives guidelines but allows organic growth over time and freedom of interpretation.”
The brilliant effect I experienced arose not only from the siting and formal presence of the Ensamble Studio constructions. It was also a consequence of my knowledge of the pieces’ origins. For me the strangest and loveliest part of the Tippet Rise experience was that my awareness of the architectural heritage of these works further helped to downplay their presence in favor of the more traditional work of the older artists, particularly Di Suvero.
Beartooth Portal, Inverted Portal, and DOMO, considered in isolation, are the most powerful, demanding, and surprising sculptural objects at Tippet Rise. If you understand them as art, their consequence is devastating: they make the Di Suveros (and the Calder) seem weak and dated. But if you think of them as buildings — or, better, architecture — they have the opposite effect. Then they offer a different class of landscape experience, organizing the site into districts and tempering expectations of the artworks made by two revered and elderly masters.
I think most visitors to Tippet Rise do accept Ensamble Studio’s structures as architecture, or at least bring with them the possibility of seeing the work that way. García-Abril and Mesa traffic in the world of critical architectural practice, present themselves as such in their professional doings, and are known as architects through the means by which most of you know about them.
Though the Halsteads try not to distinguish between architectural and artistic works — they hope, after all, for a unified vision of creativity — Ensamble Studio is clear about the way in which its objects sync with topography and experience to define landscape. In their own project description in the official guide to Tippet Rise, García-Abril and Mesa side-step any pretense to art, and refer to their work simply as architecture:
We encounter gravity and use our own energy and observation to resist the pragmatic world. Music is the metaphoric way we resist the pragmatic world. Architecture and music intercede with these forces in antagonistic ways and in total symmetry, but never coincide, since they operate with different densities. The substance of sound and the gravity of matter create the connections that make music and architecture understand each other, and accompany and merge their forces into one space, that of our spirituality.
Don’t be fooled by the form of the Ensamble Studio pieces: this is very fine architecture, behaving generously and graciously to the art around it. Remarkable work, remarkably conceived and executed — and also remarkably mediated, contextualized by the public personae of its makers and the discourses in which they take part. It will be interesting to see how the new pavilion by the architect Francis Kéré, whom the Halsteads have recently commissioned, will work in this challenging setting.
If you would like to comment on this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.